Should U.S. troops be sent into Syria, applying the lessons learned from Iraq would be crucial, according to the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen.
Over the course of 10 years, 719 service members, contractors, Iraqis and third-country nationals have lost their lives while performing rebuilding efforts, and an estimated $60 billion has been spent — at least $8 billion of it wasted, according to Bowen.
“Rather than a 10-year rebuilding program, it’s been 10 one-year rebuilding programs in both” Iraq and Afghanistan, Bowen said during a conference at the Institute for the Study of War on Monday.
For more than nine years, Bowen has served as the U.S. watchdog on the ground in Iraq. Over the course of 34 trips to Iraq, Bowen has produced 390 audits and inspections, yielding 86 convictions for fraud and other crimes and has recovered more than $200 million for the government.
“The United States is not significantly better off, structurally, with regard to planning for, executing or overseeing stabilization and reconstruction operations then it was 10 years ago,” he said.
Besides a lack of planning and execution, the U.S. also failed to consult effectively with Iraqis and had little to no oversight, he said. These challenges prolonged Iraq’s reconstruction, he said.
The lessons learned in Iraq should guide U.S. strategy if American reconstruction efforts in Syria are needed in the future, Bowen said.
The past three months have been the bloodiest in Iraq since mid-2008, Bowen said, attributing the increased violence to a spillover effect from the Syrian conflict.
In Iraq, the lead agencies were the departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. There was little to no coordination among these organizations, making it difficult to manage the more than 90,000 contracting actions that occurred in Iraq over the decade, said Bowen.
This lack of decisive leadership along with the high turnover of contractors halted the progress of the rebuilding efforts. One project may have had up to 15 to 20 different contracting officers involved, according to Bowen’s final report on Iraq published in March.
To be able to respond to challenges like those faced in Iraq, a pre-established structure and strategy must be in place before the military operation, Bowen said.
“It is our responsibility as a country to take on the lessons of Iraq, apply them to our system and improve a structure so we don’t occupy and rebuild year after year after year,” he said.
Rep. Steve Stockman, D-Texas, introduced a bill June 28 that would help establish planning and structuring for future reconstruction efforts by creating an Office for Contingency Operations.